Fresh Nuclear Thinking Needed

After decades of trying to tackle the issue, the problem of nuclear proliferation persists. Fresh thinking is needed.

Amongst the many security challenges confronting the international security community that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh identified in his speech at the UN General Assembly was that of nuclear proliferation.

In a sense, this might not seem surprising. After all, the US Nuclear Posture Review last year also named it one of the two biggest threats facing the world in 2010. And the danger of nuclear proliferation is certainly nothing new – it has been with us now for the last six decades. But what’s frustrating is the failure to properly tackle the issue after all this time. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is as universal as it can get, given that India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – the only countries that are outside the treaty – are anyway known to possess nuclear weapons. So, if nuclear proliferation is still rated as such a high-level threat, then this is tacit acknowledgement that countries that are non-nuclear members of the treaty could yet renege on their commitments to acquire nuclear weapons.

How could nuclear proliferation happen? The growing expanse of knowledge on the sophisticated running of proliferation enterprises by certain nations, especially China and Pakistan, clearly illustrates that proliferation is a game that can be played for both strategic and commercial reasons. The periodic leaking of letters of shamed Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan by the US media provides an almost serialized account of the story of the Sino-Pakistan proliferation relationship. The inability or unwillingness of the United States to put a stop to this is also well documented. And there’s every possibility of an encore if the old and/or new players in the game deem it to be in their national interest.

Why could nuclear proliferation happen? One of the key reasons is that nuclear weapons continue to be considered a currency of power and prestige. With the existing nuclear weapon states refusing to move towards any meaningful devaluation of the weapons, it’s hardly surprising that others desire them. Once the leadership of a country has decided its value for the national interest, acquisition is typically attempted through all routes – the build-up of an indigenous capability as well as acquisition from elsewhere.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It’s perhaps with this reality in mind that Singh highlighted the challenge of nuclear proliferation in the same breath as talking of the continuing relevance of the Action Plan put forward by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi for a Nuclear-Weapon-Free and Non-Violent World Order in 1988. The plan provided an elaborate road map for achieving nuclear disarmament. While it was ignored back then, the biggest take away from the Plan in today’s context is its insistence on the principles of universality, non-discrimination, and verifiability of a nuclear weapons-free world.

It’s only through such a principled approach that nuclear non-proliferation can be made possible and sustainable. All states will have to renounce such weapons so that current non-possessors gradually lose an interest in acquiring them too. Without this approach, new nuclear states will continue to emerge. Addressing the challenge of nuclear proliferation requires greater innovation than has been shown so far. The leaders gathered at the UN General Assembly badly need some fresh thinking.